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August 30, 2013

And So We Sit and Wait

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” ~George Orwell, 1984

The events in this prescient novel written in 1949 were to have happened almost 30 years ago.  While the dystopia of the novel is not yet fully blown, I read these words, and I want to weep. In my country, ignorance has become strength and war may as well be peace for so many people appear unperturbed that we’ve been in a constant state of war since 2001.

I remember exactly where I was when news of the first airstrikes against Afghanistan broke. I was in a church. It was in Switzerland, and I was with a room of mostly women from many different countries, predominantly American and British, but from all over the world.  “Viet Nam” was muttered by more than one person, and I thought, “No, not again. It couldn’t.”

Just a month earlier we’d faced 9/11. Many of my students were seriously frightened that they had just seen the start of WWIII. But when the Afghanistan War started, they were no longer afraid. They were angry.

Just two years later, I was in a different country, Sweden, when the Iraq War started. Let’s just say that reaction in Sweden was far from positive. I don’t have pleasant memories of that time. Sometimes when tempers flared, people would forget that I am not the US government, nor am I even a representative of the government. Water under the bridge.

But again, WWIII was mentioned in passing.

And now we wait and watch what will happen in Syria. More than one person has mentioned WWIII, as if another World War is inevitable. As if “the war to end all wars” never happened. Oh wait. Never mind. Not counting the Cold War, the US was embroiled in another war five short years after WWII ended.

My tone is may sound bitter today, but I’m actually not feeling bitter. I’m feeling sad. I’m an unrepentant child of the 60s and early 70s. I do believe all that peacenik stuff people called “Commie”.  It’s out of fashion now, but as John Lennon, a powerful voice in the peace movement, said, “If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliche that must have been left behind in the Sixties, that’s his problem. Love and peace are eternal.”  But we seem to have lost our way, John.

These days, I teach many vets and even active service people. I have nothing but the utmost respect for them.  They don’t start the wars. They just fight them. As Gen. Doulgas MacArthur said, “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”  I mostly agree with him, of course. My soldiers write things to me that break my heart. They tell me what they’ve seen, what they’ve done, what they’ve experienced. I can not even imagine, but I am privileged to carry their stories. If I can relieve their burden one iota, I will do it gladly.  One student wrote to me: “I like reading poetry in your class because it’s the only time the guns in my head stop.”  I would read poetry with him for hours if I could.

But of course, it’s the civilians I worry about. War is cruel. A student this morning told me of a bombing near a Syrian school.  Children.  But children have always had the worst of war.  Still, things have been insane and dangerous in Syria for too long now, and something has to change.

So this compounds my sadness. The peacenik, the mostly pacifist, can’t see a way to calm things. Do I think attacking Syria will help? No.  But this is too big for me. I can’t think.  But I can pray, which is what I seem to do best these days.

The UK House of Commons voted to not support a military intervention in Syria, and I’m wondering whether the US Congress will have the same opportunity.  According to an article on CNN, “More than 160 members of Congress, including 63 Democrats, have now signed letters calling for either a vote or at least a ‘full debate’ before any U.S. action.”  But Congress is in recess until September 9th. Yes, I can see the White House waiting till they are all back. Yes. Sure.

This situation is changing rapidly.  So we sit and wait and see. And nothing is worse than waiting.

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June 8, 2013

Grattis Madeleine och Chris

It’s a big day in Sweden today. Princess Madeleine, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia’s youngest child, married her Anglo-American fiance Chris O’Neil.  Who doesn’t love a pretty wedding? And as a former Swedish resident, I was curious.

When I was learning Swedish I read the two national tabloids most days to work on my vocabulary. We owned a shop which sold them, so it was easy enough to do.  And the one thing that gets covered ad nauseum in the tabloids is the royal family, so I’m surprisingly familiar with them. That adds to my curiosity, of course. I’ve watched this woman in the media for over 10 years. She’s familiar.

But I was curious for another reason. Princess Madeleine has been living in New York City for the past three years, and I actually came face to face with her early one morning on a coffee run. A narrow door: she was coming out, I was going in, so we were inches apart. I recognized her face, thought she was a former student, but then realized, no, that’s the princess. Five years in Sweden, never see a royal. Here in NYC? Come face to face with one. No words were spoken, just the usual polite smiles exchanged as one person steps aside for the other. Besides, I’m far too much of a New Yorker to react to a famous face, and she was just another New Yorker during the early morning rush.

But having seen the woman in the flesh, I was curious about her wedding.  Three years ago, her sister, Crown Princess Victoria, got married. I was curious then, as well, so I checked out the Swedish websites that day and was truly happy for her.  And homesick for Sweden.

Leading up to today, I was feeling much less nostalgic for Sweden, but of course, the first thing I did this morning was to log on to the website of Sweden’s biggest tabloid, Aftonbladet, to check out the pictures.

I loved it. The Swedish princesses are very pretty women with excellent taste in clothing. The bride’s Valentino dress was stunning and the bride looked like, well, a princess from a storybook. Everything about the wedding was lovely. The flowers, the children singing in the church, the reading by the Crown Princess. And I was struck at how much seeing Stockholm in all its summer beauty made me homesick.

There are videos on the site, of course, and the one that made me go all soft and gooey was the short one of Madeleine going up the aisle on her father’s arm. The shots of Chris O’Neil showed him visibly moved, unsuccessfully holding back tears. Yesterday I didn’t know the guy from Adam. Today, I think he’s a sweetie.

For all the royal pomp and circumstance, the overwhelming feeling I got from the pictures was love and warmth. The bridal pair is obviously besotted. Watching the royal family interact one can see the strong family love and connection. Victoria’s daughter, the littlest princess, Estelle, is 15 months old, but even she was at the wedding interacting with her mother, father and grandmother.

Seeing such obvious joy on the faces of Madeleine and Chris and their families just felt good. Watching something lovely set in the magnificent royal chapel and then later on the streets of Stockholm on a glorious summer day was a welcome respite from the “real world”. It was a moment away from school shootings, illegal wiretaps, financial meltdown and all the harsh realities we usually see in the news.

I feel the same way about all the weddings I attend, but this summer I don’t have any lined up, so I have to look to Sweden. I know there are American celebrity weddings, but I don’t recognize most of the people involved. And those weddings are not semi-state occasions, put on, in part, for public consumption. If celebrities get married and want privacy, they should have it. If they don’t, well, then I’ll look at their pictures, too.

We all need joy and happiness, reasons to celebrate and a reminder that love is something real that should be celebrated.  Part of me feels silly, uncool, and somewhat old fashioned for watching a royal wedding, but after all, I am a child of my times. Back when I was a little girl, fairy tale weddings were something to dream about. So for the most part it made me feel good to watch, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling good.

Madeleine och Chris: Grattis på ditt äktenskap. Må Gud välsigna er med ett långt och lyckligt liv tillsammans.

And Chris? Good luck learning Swedish!

May 5, 2013

The Unholy Trinity: Salt, Sugar, Fat

I just finished reading Michael Moss’s book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. It was full of very appalling information, and if you haven’t been paying attention for the past 20 or so years, I highly recommend it.  Luckily, I have a mother who is very aware of the evils of processing, so she passes the fruits of her research on to me.

Sometimes we tease her about her diet choices, but the woman will be 81 in a few months and takes no medications. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are low, and in fact her 40-something physician told her that she wished her numbers were that good. So obviously Mom is doing something right.  And she’s regularly mistaken for being in her late 60s. It’s partly genetics, but also partly vigilance.

As I was reading the chapter on Lunchables–and yes, that particular product has its own chapter–I realized how lucky I was to have “missed” them.  We left America in 1995 when my son was 4; we returned in 2007 when he was 16.  His entire schooling was in other countries.  By the time we returned, his tastes and preferences had been set. And in other countries, at least the ones we lived in, children’s school lunches were serious business.

My son went to school in Taiwan, Switzerland and Sweden, but at every school hot lunches were supplied every day, and children were not allowed to bring a packed lunch. They learned to eat what was put in front of them. If they didn’t like something, they could fill up on salad and bread.  Sweets were not allowed on school grounds, and the beverages served with lunch were water or milk. Plain milk, not chocolate.

So thanks to the rigidity of the schools he went to, I never had to fight the peer pressure of Lunchables or any of the other vile products marketed to children in this country. Although I almost always gave him plain oatmeal, sugary cereals were always available, but super sweet American cereals were not. When we came home to America on visits he was allowed a box of Froot Loops or Lucky Charms, his favorites, and I allowed him Pop Tarts, something I wouldn’t have had I lived here.  Ironic, I know, but as ex-pat moms, we just have different ways of working out our guilt.

Before we left America, I was much stricter. Until he was about 2 1/2 I had him convinced that rice cakes were cookies. The babysitter’s house disabused him of that notion, but at home, after the rice cakes deception was up, he got juice sweetened organic cookies. I was trying hard to give him good eating habits and not develop an overly sweet tooth.

Something worked as he’s not a sweets person. After the first few months back in the US, eating all the things he’d missed in Europe–Pop Tarts, donuts, root beer, sugary cereal–he mostly stopped. He felt glutted just like some tourists to America who come and eat all of our foods, loving it, but then are very happy to go home.

For me, though, reading this book was partly preaching to the choir.  Many of my students write papers about the obesity epidemic and almost all of them cite the cheap availability of fast food or convenience food as a main problem.  This riles me because I know for what you’d pay to eat at a fast food chain, even one with cheap menus, I could prepare a meal that’s half the price and immeasurably better for them.  I even once wrote a cook book (unpublished, alas) of cheap, unprocessed, healthy recipes.

And per pound, much junk food is much more expensive than carrots, apples or any in-season fruit or home popped popcorn not done in a microwave.  But as Moss points out in his book, we’re pretty much addicted to the salt, sugar and fat in junk food.

The overprocessing and over commercialization of food in America is a real and serious problem.  I have no answers for a quick fix.  As with everything, I believe education is an important step. More people should read Moss’s book. More people should read nutrition labels.

One interesting point that Moss does make is that poor nutritional choices are marketed at certain economic classes.  Upper middle class folks and above, well their children aren’t taking Go-Gurts and Lunchables to school.  I see this as problematic in two ways.

First, there is a perceived notion that “healthy” food is “expensive” food.  This is sadly true when it comes to organic in this country, but the fewer processed foods in the grocery cart, the lower the bill.  Even if we buy minimally processed goods, it’s still cheaper than buying convenience foods.  A can of tomatoes mixed with some garlic and herbs, dried is fine, makes a fine pasta sauce without the added sugar, fat and salt found in commercial pasta sauces. It also costs less.  A PB&J, even using natural peanut butter and spreadable fruit on whole wheat like I do, is still cheaper than an Uncrustables PB&J. I’ll get off the soapbox now.

Second, and I see this as much more insidious, children in certain socio-economic groups are getting poorer nutrition and are already facing high cholesterol, high blood pressure  and diabetes, all of which are debilitating. But what I see as even worse, they aren’t getting what they need for their brains to develop to their fullest potential.  In this way the academic divide between rich and poor is ever so slightly widened.  All I can think when I think of this is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which the strictly delineated classes are fed differently from gestation on. This, to me, is chilling.

I’ve written about food in America before, and I do see this as a major problem of American society.  If you’re looking for some hard facts about the situation, a good place to start is Moss’s book. But I think this might be something I come back to.

Follow up: Shortly after I posted this, I saw a photography project I’d seen before: One week’s worth of groceries from around the world. There couldn’t have been a better visual if I tried.  You can find an article about Peter Menzel’s project here.

September 27, 2012

Comfort food

Filed under: ex-pats,New Broads,Sweden,Uncategorized — by maggiec @ 6:12 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A woman hit me in the head with a yoga mat today. It was the start of a wonderful conversation.

I had stopped by a new “lot” store on the way home, and as I rounded the corner, I walked into a falling yoga mat. It doesn’t sound as dramatic that way, though. The woman who had knocked it off was very apologetic, and while she was talking, I noticed her accent.

She was German-Algerian and French was her first language, so I was wrong in my guess. But we both had lived in Geneva as she freelanced for the UN, so we had Geneva in common.

She also lived here now, but had been in Paris to visit family, and this store was new to her. I mentioned that it was a good place for German cookies and we were off!  We stood in that store talking for a good ten minutes, two strangers but tied by their search for familiar foods.  I think I enjoyed having that conversation again as much as I enjoyed telling her where to find certain things.

Ex-pats, when they meet their fellows in foreign lands, always have the “where can I get…” conversation.  Once I’d lived a place long enough, I was the one giving the newbies the information.  Some things are impossible to find in foreign lands, but we all learn where we can find many of the ingredients or products we need to make being an ex-pat less “foreign”.

As I’ve been back in America for five years, I don’t often have this conversation anymore. Today I realize how much I’ve missed it–the sense of being different, of spying out things natives may overlook. Of being on a foraging adventure with like minded folks. It was bonding over food–an activity as old as civilization.  Living in New York City I can find everything I miss if I’m willing to pay the price and perhaps travel a bit.  But some products are harder to find than others.  Real crème fraîche made with unpasturized cream is very difficult to find. The children’s candy staple Kinder Eggs are actually illegal in America. But for the most part, I can find things.

I still get cravings, though, and miss foods from “home,” but now “home” is Sweden, Switzerland and Taiwan.  The Taiwan part is easy. I go to Chinatown.  Sometimes I don’t even have to go that far. The other day I was walking down a block in the Garment District, and was all of a sudden back in Taiwan. Something delicious and exotic and very, very Chinese was wafting out of a small take-out restaurant; the streets were clogged and dark from construction; the languages around me weren’t English. I was so happy to feel “at home”!

Swedish food is only really a problem at the holidays, and I have a “connection” now. IKEA used to be a source, and still is, but they carry a house brand now, not the brand names.

Swiss food is the most elusive to find sometimes. Swiss wine is incredibly difficult to get outside of Switzerland, which is a shame. I developed quite the taste for it in my years there.  Choucroute garnie, a dish of sauerkraut, sausages, ham and pork pieces with boiled potatoes, is hard to duplicate (especially since I bought it ready made at the store). Filets des perche, a lake fish from Lake Geneva, are a regional specialty not usually found outside the canton.

The other day, though, at a large discounter I found petit suisse and swooned. It’s a fresh unripened cheese, often flavored with fruits or chocolate and given to children as a snack as we use yogurt in America but in much smaller servings, only a few ounces. I bought a package for my son, as it was a favorite of his when we lived in Geneva. He wasn’t interested, having forgotten it, so I had to force myself to eat it. A sacrifice, but I did it.

My conversation pal did tell me one great secret: where to find quark!  No, Trekkies, not the character.  Früchtequark (called fromage frais in French, but not the same as just any fromage frais) is fruit flavored or served with fruits and is wonderful. Oh, how I’ve missed it!  I actually dream of it sometimes.  But I’ve learned there’s a source in the Bronx of all places! Now I love the Bronx, but it’s not usually known for a large German population.  The Bronx is were to go for great Italian and Dominican food.

There are days I miss being an ex-pat terribly. But today, for a sweet few minutes, I was once again the world citizen, helping a fellow traveler find the familiars of comfort food.

June 19, 2010

Princess Bride

Filed under: New Broads,Sweden — by maggiec @ 4:09 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Today Princess Victoria of Sweden married her long time boyfriend Daniel Westling.  I wish them long and happy.  Of course, I went to the website of Sweden’s biggest tabloid, Aftonbladet to look at the pictures–I have a soft spot for brides.  She looked lovely and radiantly happy, and it did my curmudgeonly old heart a world of good to see them.  And really, I’m not royalist, but royal families are pretty good at fabulous weddings, and if I am going to look at wedding pictures, I do so enjoy fabulous.

The royal wedding isn’t making much of a splash here in the US.  When I checked the NY Times, there was nothing, but then on Huffington Post I read that major news agencies refused to cover it because of what they termed “unfair restrictions” by Swedish national television. But I don’t think many people in the US care. I don’t think many know there is a king of Sweden much less a crown princess.  The  Twitterverse is hopping, and someone is tweeting the entire thing. No, I didn’t read it.  Just looked for research purposes.

But looking at the wedding pictures was bittersweet.  I occasionally miss Sweden, and today of all days it was looking its best.  Stockholm is an incredibly beautiful city, the Venice of the North, and those who showed up to watch the festivities were all ready to celebrate. And come summer, Swedes just love to celebrate!  This time of year the sun keeps going on 11 PM in Stockholm in the form of a lingering dusk.  You really should see it someday.  After the incredibly long nights of winter, this is the reward.  So I know I’m missing a good party.  Even though my Swedish husband is a staunch republican, he’s never said no to a good party.  And I suspect he harbors a soft spot for the princess.  She’s sweet and pretty and hasn’t actively done anything boneheaded in public to embarrass the country, unlike another Swedish royal I could name, but I won’t since it’s his daughter’s wedding day and all that.

But yes, I miss Sweden some days. I coincidentally looked at my passport today, and I still have my resident permit, so theoretically I could go back.  I could even get a job at my old university.  Some days it is incredibly tempting, but I know I won’t.  Too many things are still keeping me here in the US, and besides, the Swedish summer is fleeting.  All too soon it would be dark and cold, and I would be cursing my fate.

I just wanted to blog today since I’m feeling more Swedish than usual.  The opposite of that is that I’m feeling much more foreign today. Of course, my usual feeling of being Swedish is not at all, but I spent five years there thinking I’d be there for much much longer. I wanted to commemorate the day for Victoria as I never thought she’d see it.  Although she’s dated Daniel for eight years, he is a gym owner and her former personal trainer.  Not exactly prince material, though today he became Prince Daniel, Duke of Vastergotland, so fair play to you, Daniel.  You made it.

The face of monarchy is certainly changing.  And I was surprised at all the royalty I knew–watching the slideshow of pictures I could recognize most of the Scandinavian royalty as well as the English, Spanish, Dutch and Jordanian.  The only one I really care about is Queen Rania of Jordan, who is a powerhouse activist for things I deeply care about and blogs about her causes.  The royals are familiar to me because I learned a lot of Swedish reading the tabloids while I was working at our video shop.  We sold the papers, so I would read them to learn.  Since just like here, tabloids are written at about a third or fourth grade level, it was perfect for me.  Plus there were lots of pictures, and the royals of Europe would often make the pages.  And coincidentally, while I was living in Europe a lot of crown princes and princesses got married.

As with any wedding, I cooed over the bride and groom.  I did like her dress very much–very Swedish, I thought, modern Swedish design that is clean and classic–and she really did look amazingly happy.  So did Daniel. Her family looked happy as well.  There was only one picture in which her younger sister looked quite melancholy, but poor Madeleine’s own engagement broke up in April when her fiance cheated on her, and the other woman sold her story to the press.  Princess Madeleine is almost always “on,” so I was surprised at my reaction to the picture.  I felt sorry for her, but then I’d feel sorry for any woman in the same position, really.

I also made fun of some of the outfits.  Royalty can wear the most gawd-awful gowns!  Most of the men looked like toy soldiers with ribbons and medals and such, but some of the queens and princesses looked like they were wearing upholstery.

I felt a little silly wanting to write about this today, but with all the hate, anger and evil dominating the world’s attention now, sometimes it’s nice to focus on love, hope and promise. I will now go back to ignoring the Swedish royal family, something very easy to do, until the first royal baby.  Weddings make us think of babies, of course, and part of Victoria’s job description is providing an heir.  So I’m guessing right around this time next year, I’ll have another column talking about missing Sweden.

Grattis på bröllopsdagen, Victoria och Daniel!  Lycka till!

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